The world may be falling apart, but in this down-to-earth blue-collar city in the Appalachian foothills there are more immediate things to worry about. Fused money, for instance.
Gus Yatron, Reading's five-term Democratic congressman, was visited in his office here Thursday morning by two constituents, a man and his nephew. They deposited on his desk two strange, ragged objects the size of bricks -- $30,000 in paper money that had become fused together.
The nephew explained that he was goint through a messy divorce and didn't want his wife to get her hands on all his money. So he had withdrawn his savings from a bank, put it in a plastic bag, and buried it. Look at what happened:
Could Yatron take the two moneybricks down to Washington, the men wanted to know, and get them pried apart?
Yatron, a big, patient man, said he didn't think so, but he would look into the situation. The next day, he put the men in touch with the Treasury's mutilated-currency overseers.
The problems people bring to a congressman home on recess and receiving supplicants are not all so specialized, but neither do they touch, except in hints here and there, on Soviet aggression, American prestige, arms limitation, or the decline of the West.
The exception, of course, is the crisis in Iran, which has worked its way into the daily life of Reading as it has in cities across the country. Every day at noon, church bells peal for the hostages. One of the pealers is the Rev. Richard Schafer of Calvary Lutheran Church, whose brother, Air Force Col. Thomas Schaefer, is the defense attache in the Tehran embassy. Three weeks ago, a thousand people turned out for a march down Reading's main street in support of the hostages.
"The march made me aware that a lot of people feel a lot more strongly about their allegiance to this country than I thought," says Hank Sherman, 28, president of a local factory-outlet furniture store (Reading calls itself The Outlet Capital of the World) and one of the march organizers. "a lot of people my age have changed their feelings about this country." He picks up a little American flag on a wooden stick and regards it with a wry look. "I've handed out about 700 of these little suckers."
But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did not similarly stir Sherman's soul. "I don't feel good about it," he says, "but I don't think it's that different from what we've done in Pakistan and Vietnam. I don't hear much about Afghanistan. But a lot of people are psyched about Iran."
Back at Yatron's office, the fused-money men were followed by an applicant for a summer internship and a delegation of firemen wanting legislation requiring more smoke detectors in buildings, part of the endless stream of people who fill his time when he's back in the district office.
Yatron, a 52-year-old former professional heavyweight boxer (he was 13-2-1 and, if he hadn't heeded parental objections and gone into the family ice cream business, "maybe could have gone on to become a contender," he says), receives them in a geniral and determinedly nonideological manner.For the record, he is a moderate Democrat who succeeded an ex-Socialist Democrat; mostly, he tries to get for his constituents whatever it is they want -- from disability payments to farm subsidies to trade restrictions -- from the federal government.
Then a nervous, bald, middle-aged accountant named Nicholas Blake came in.
"Congressman," said Blake, "I've run into a peculiar problem. My daughter Pam, because she's deaf, she went to school in Massachusetts. Then she came home. It was natural for her to come work with us.
"She's been here two years. But her life, if you will, is in Massachusetts. Her, if you will, her boyfriend is up there. Now, there's not supposed to be discrimination against the handicapped but there is. So she can't get a job. If it were Reading, there'd be no problem. But I've got no business contacts in Massachusetts. To be blunt, I'm desperately looking for help. I'm saying that, in desperation, I've tried everything else and now I'm going to the government for help."
"Well, we'll try," said Yatron. "I'll make an honest and sincere effort to try and be helpful."
Blake looked immensely relieved. "You know," he said, "sometimes we think, aw, the congressman's up in an ivory tower. What does he care about me, Joe Smith? But that's not true."'
"People have become frustrated with out government," said Yatron.
Blake leaned forward intently. "But it's still the best government in the world!"
"It's the best country in the world," said Yatron.
The next visitors were Howard (Mike) Beaver, chairman and chief executive officer of Reading's biggest employer. Carpenter Technology Corp., and Wally Hudson, one of his aids. Smiling broadly, Beaver talked a lititle about how pleased he was with Yatron's cooperation, and about the salutary progress of some legislation. Then he frowned.
"Now a negative," he said. "We just announced a $400 million expansion program. It'll create a thousand new jobs. This expansion program requires a lot of energy. We're the biggest customers of Metropolitan Edison.
"But ever since Three Mile Island, we in central Pennsylvania have sat here as the sacrificial lamb. This is a good area. It's a old area. It's a work ethic area. We feel strongly that we must grow to provide jobs and meet America's specialty steel needs."
"You know, Gus," said Wally Hudson, "half of Chicago's energy is nuclear. But where's the controversy? Central Pennsylvania. We're the whipping boy."
"Well, I'll certainly be supportive," said Yatron. "Perhaps Three Mile Island was a good thing because it'll make nuclear plants even more safe."
I appreciate it, Gus," said Beaver.
A young man wanting advice about entering politics came in and a delegation of farmers upset about the Labor Department's migrant-worker policies. Then came another local captain of industry -- Alfred Pierce, a big, rugged, black-haired man, vice president of Gilberton Coal Co. which mines the anthracite coal found northeast of Reading. In 1918, the hard coal regions of Pennsylvania produced 100 million tons; last year, five million tons.
"We've had some recognition but it hasn't helped us in any way," said Pierce, with a countenance somewhere between frustration and despair. "Here we are, Gus, at five million tons. Why? The federal government is regulating coke. And the foreign companies are dumping coke. The city of Philadelphia says you can't burn hard coal in its natural state. Some counties in New Jersey you can, some you can't. Philly's gone to oil burners.
"Not many people even know how to handle coal any more. We grew up with a coal stove in the living room and one in the kitchen."
"That's right," said Yatron. "We all had two coal stoves."
"This country was built on antrhacite coal," said Pierce. "The industrial might of the country came out of right here. It scares the bejeezus out of me. I don't understand it. But I don't understand why we don't draw the line in Afghanistan. We let 'em go in Angola. I think. . . d" he paused, his thoughts all jangled. "I think you've got people who want to work hard here. We don't have resorts here.We ought to get Congress to say, with the situation we got today, with the Arabs, the Russians, and all that, if there's a situation, where you can use coal, let's look at it. Let's just look at it."
Yatron's next visitors were six immigrants from Taiwan, American citizens, some of whose relatives back home had been imprisoned during the government's crackdown on dissidents. At great length, they complained about the evils of the Taiwanese government. Yatron nodded sympathically from time to time.
"They think the U.S. is concerned with Iran and the Mideast problems," said Yung C. Chen, a coal gasification engineer. "So they can go ahead and have mass arrests."
"So you feel," said Yatron, "that with the United States thinking about all its problems, they can go ahead and arrest people."
"Right," the visitors all said, nodding in vigorous agreement. Obviously, as far as they were concerned Yatron had hit the nail on the head. "Right. Right. Right."
Then a middle-aged lady in a miniskirt and a fur hat came in, clutching a set of rosary beads, to ask for more disability payments for her husband. She said the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Sacred Heart of the Virgin had personally spoken to her. Then two crusading members the housing commission, one of whom had just had his efforts rewarded with a rock through his car window. The congressman tried to soothe them all. He said he would do what he could. Then he went home.